Potential Timeline Hijinks Aren’t a Risk, They’re an Opportunity

I’ve been recycling a Dungeons and Dragons campaign that, in its first run, dramatically changed during the time it was transitioning from the “early introduction to the mechanics, world, and general themes” phase to the “initial major plot threads and character story incorporation” phase. Because of some players withdrawing due to pandemic-related stress and removing a player due to violating table rules and interpersonal conflicts, the scope of the campaign had to be drastically reduced since two of the early-plot-essential player characters were no longer in the campaign. And while I could find a way to make it work without them, the players left weren’t as interested in continuing those story arcs the way they’d been going. So I made some major changes, moved their campaign around in time, and changed how a lot of the story was being told. As a result, I had an entire campaign’s worth of world prep, plot notes/ideas, and cool magic items just sitting around.

That campaign is being reused as a side-game for my main weekly D&D campaign. This is the campaign that had moved into a dark fantasy/mild horror situation as part of their progression. Since they’re still early in that section of the campaign, I’ve been trying to avoid running it if all of the players can’t be present. The introduction to the mechanics and world is an important step in the process and I don’t want anyone to miss out if I can avoid it. Since we all still want to play D&D and at least one person has been missing from about 80% of the last nine months of possible sessions, I’ve set up this side game in a way that can be played with as few as two players. Since it takes place in the same world (other side of the continent, though) and a couple years in the future, I get to play with some fun time elements, hinting at world events unrelated to the main game that paint a picture of what is going on at-large when they’re still at a point of being focused on the local world and a whole different slew of problems.

I don’t think the players are going to do anything to screw with the timeline on purpose. They’re all interested in seeing how things play out and none of them are the contrary, “screw you for the lulz” type, but they’re all very creative and willing to go out on a limb so they might wind up messing with the timeline incidentally. Given the narrative stakes (I go big or go home) and how the larger narratives of the world have the potential to become incredibly intertwined if the players head in that direction, it might seem scary to be setting the stories so close to each other without some mechanism in place to account for what the players might do to cause ripples in the other game (they have the potential to become concurrent if they run long enough). That said, I think it’s incredibly exciting for me, as a dungeon master and storyteller because I’ll be forced to think and work in a way my D&D games don’t typically push me.

There’s this concept in more narrative games that a success or failure doesn’t reflect a character’s ability so much as the state of the world in that moment. Failing a roll to stab someone doesn’t mean you were bad at stabbing in that moment, but that the world was in such a state that your stab couldn’t have worked. Maybe they had started dodging, maybe their armor was too strong, maybe they were an illusion, maybe your footing was bad, or who knows what else. Whatever the reason, trying to stab them in that moment was never going to work. If you’re rolling to understand the world around you and fail, it doesn’t mean that you missed something, but that there was something cleverly hidden from you. It embraces the idea that the “camera” is only focused on this moment because something is going to happen, for good or for ill.

Applying this idea to my Dungeons and Dragons games means that, in the instances of “interference” with the timeline, that this was always how it played out, no matter what people thought. Maybe this moment of weakness rather than death opened the door to later death. Maybe no one died but they let people think they died for reasons unknown. Maybe someone else always had that relic. Maybe this person was actually just an undercover agent in the cult rather than a cultist and either had to act to maintain their cover or got in too deep and their cover stopped being cover. Who knows! The possibilities are endless and incredibly exciting! It’s also possible none of this will ever come up, the games will remain unrelated in every way other than the already-established ways, and I’ll never be forced to figure out why certain events seem to be in conflict with each other. Regardless, I think it’ll be fun for me, and that’s an important thing to include in any tabletop campaign.

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